Wednesday, December 22, 2004

A Prayer for Advent

Oh God,

We are coming through this period of Advent, this period of waiting, of traffic at the mall, credit cards posed; overwhelmed with the love we have for our friends and families, yet still feeling everything we have to give is inadequate.

Even in the midst of our loving family we can feel alone. We miss the ones who are not here, wondering how Christmas can still be Christmas without them, We wonder how we will make it through the trials ahead’: January and February loom long, dark and cold.

But along with the fear, there is a branch of hope. We are incurably wounded and grieving, our heads in our hands, yet still peering through our fingers at the late rising sun on an unimaginably cold morning.

And then, quite unexpectedly, we hear the birthday songs of the new baby, this child whom we approach with tenderness and wonder. We see our own children light up with simple joy, and we remember what it’s like to be light again. We feel the stirring of green shoots in our own hearts, straining toward the faint light of a candle, the rose gold beams of the dawning sun. And we thank you for the fact that no victories are ever won except by this slow tender growth, this steady sun, your immutable gaze, your compassionate forgiveness, daily bread. And we see that you have patiently waited for us all our lives.

So today, we will wait for you.


Friday, December 17, 2004

The Sky in Mid December

The sky at four o'clock on December sixteenth. The sky in mid December when the front shifts from subhuman pre-deep freeze (so cold one breath goes straight to your brian and holds it in a nump clasp, not quite friendly, not quite lethal) to something more human, more gentle; still cold but just enough to be grateful for fires. The sky in mid December just before sunset, blue at the top, marked. Streaked with plane lines, exhausted plane tails trail by a saucy crescent of a moon--the moon just another white mark. The sky in mid December with the naked trees shimmying their branches black black against the sky like the fingers of African dancers. The sky in mid December when the light is fading and the rim red blaze hits the hills to the west and you almost miss it.

You almost miss it because you are filling your gas tank. You almost don't look twice as you're filling your gas tank at the Gibb's station next to the Polish deli. You almost don't look twice when the best part of you notices the sky. You almost space out and keep the gas pump going with the heel of an old high heeled shoe you keep in the backseat for just this purpose: so you can disengage from the pondorous act of filling your gas tank. You could disengage, turn your back, walk a few feet and make a call on your cell phone. But instead you fight through the sickening moment, the moment of engagement and you hold your gaze steady on the scene, as a body surfer off the coast of New Zealand holds the wave; as a climber grips the hold in the rock face; as a prize fighter takes the blows as he waits for the opponant to wear out; as a woman pants through the contraction. Your job is so much easier and the very most hard.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

And This Should Be Done While Taking A Vigorous Walk

Thanksgiving was full of thanks and full of giving. In my cynical past, I sometimes thought of Thanksgiving as a cruel prelude to The Festival Of Anxiety Where You Spend Money You Don't Have Trying To Please The People In Your Life With Whom You Have the Most Complicated And Loaded Relationships, AKA Christmas. Thanksgiving, in my mind, was Christmas Lite. The food wasn't as good (remember I am not a turkey fan) and the pressure wasn't as high. The ground was still bare and the pumpkins might still be rotting on the porch.

Let me tell you about Thanksgiving this year. Collect, if you will, in your mind, a family where the term "taking a nap" is as titillating and as shameful as some sexual acts. Where high achievements go hand in hand with sainthood and where conversation routinely is taken to include only discussion of Things That Matter: the state of the world-physical, political, ecological, artistic-- the state of your soul. MAYBE the Red Sox. And this should be done while taking a vigorous walk.

We are: a top Washington DC lawyer, two kick ass US history teachers, two nationally ranked tennis players, three professional folk rock musicians, a real estate mogul cum internet savant, a reporter for the nation's number one celebrity magazine. And that's just the under five crowd. (I'm not counting Dave's parents who are even MORE impressive They showed up later in the weekend, leaving at 2am when they heard their future grandchild was on the way, arrived at the hospital at 5:15 and stayed until 9:30am. They had to go back to NYC because Dave’s mother was staring in a play, and she had a matinee at 2pm.)

We get up and go. We Do it Now. We succeed. We are productive.

Now, don't get me wrong. I love these people more than I love any people on earth, and I believe I would even if I weren't related to them. They are funny, intense, sincere, interesting folk. They have huge warm hearts. Once, a friend told me, right after meeting my parents, "Oh, Nerissa, they are like gods! They shimmer with gold!" I am so proud to be a member of my family. I look forward to visits and feel sad when they're over. I call them up, instant message with them, tell them of my triumphs and woes. They listen and commiserate, encourage and cheerlead. In short, I am deeply blessed and did not deserve any of this.

But there is one thing that does not come naturally to Nieldses (nor to some of their significant others). We do not feel exactly comfortable with unscheduled unplanned time. We like to Know. We like the Plan. Especially if it's MY plan, and not, say, my mother's plan. So vacations of yore were spent hiking all forty six of the Adirondacks high peaks, driving all over Ireland, Wales, England and Scotland to see AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE in two weeks, playing tennis, golf, etc.

As I said in an earlier post, I have never hosted Thanksgiving. The morning came, and Tom and I stuffed the turkey (a small, free range one) and roasted two ducks, cut up purple potatoes, made a coffee chocolate cheesecake, steamed some green beans with almonds. At one point, I looked at my watch and said, "It's time to grieve my losses," and pulled out a journal from three years ago when I was single on Thanksgiving. The desert years. Tom had them too, those years when you can be smack dab in the middle of your family and feel a million miles away. I showed him a picture of me, a group photo, and I am indeed smack dab in the center, with a big grin on my face, because God forbid I appear unhappy about the fact that my eleven year marriage was over and I was single. So we took a break and I cried, and man, did that feel good.

My family began to arrive: my sister Abigail with her husband Mark and the twins, just seven months old. My beautiful parents. My pregnant sister Katryna and Skinny Dave (he gave up Nasty Orange Circus Peanuts). Amazing Amelia who is no longer afraid of Cody the No Longer Barking Dog (we trained him! Ask me how!) We gathered the food, we lit some candles even though it was broad daylight. We read a couple of Bible passages, one from Micah: “For what does God ask of us but to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with thy God?” and Matthew: “Consider the lilies of the field. They toil not nor do they spin, yet even Solomon was not arrayed as one of these.” We went around the table and said what we were thankful for, what we were sad about and what we wished for the world. We ate and laughed and cried and loved each other.

Then the most amazing thing happened. We did nothing for about two days. We sat around and held babies and chatted took digital photos of each other and played unscheduled silly games, like Attaturk and Balderdash. We went to see Ben Demerath and Northern Lights at the Iron Horse. We went for walks in the park and to the playground at the YMCA. We hung out. Pre-scheduled C-Sections aside, one cannot rush a baby. Katryna sat among us like a queen, gently helping Amelia into her Princess shoes (pink with sparkles), pontificating on the merits of cranberry sauce with horseradish, and kicking ass in Attaturk. Occasionally she’d have a contraction and we’d get all excited, but Wednesday, Thursday and Friday all came and went with no visit to the hospital. We were at the mercy of the smallest and least productive us of all, and we were enjoying that.

There is a term a writer in one of my workshops named Elizabeth taught me: Fikka. It’s a Swedish word meaning “to have coffee and pastry and conversation.” My aunt Elizabeth, the potter from upstate NY has a similar term called “Argy Bargy.” That’s what we got to do over Thanksgiving weekend. We fikka’d. We argy bargied. And then at 5 am on Saturday morning, Tom and I got a call from Dave: “Come meet someone,” he said. We threw on our clothes and ran across the street to meet William John Chalfant, infant extraordinaire, sure to be great and accomplished, even if all he ever does is sit around and fikka.

Not that there weren’t accomplishments during the weekend. Well, of course, Katryna had a pretty serious accomplishment, and you might say that William, having been born, accomplished something somewhat significant. Also, seven month old Emmett crawled his first steps (or are they “kneps?”) and Abigail won the Balderdash tournament. (At least I think Abigail won. All I know is that I didn’t.)

At church the Sunday before, Stephen preached about the passage in Mark where Jesus gets told during one of his big Pow Wows where he’s preaching and healing and making miraculous things happen, that his mother and brothers are waiting to see him.
(Mark 3:33-35.) “And he replied, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking around on those who sat about him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother.’"
The sermon was about families of choice and is a comforting theme this time of year. Even Jesus had family problems-they thought he was crazy for much of his life and he wasn’t able to perform miracles in his home town because of their unbelief. Like I said earlier, I realize how rare and remarkable and wonderful it is to have a family whom I believe in. I’m not wise enough to presume they are doing the will of God, but I do know they are doing the best they can, that they make me laugh, that they hold me when I cry and that they are all continuing to grow. And for all this, and so much more, I continue to be thankful.